A Demonology of the Internet

A Demonology of the Internet July 26, 2023

Yesterday we blogged about an article by Catholic theologian Thomas Harmon entitled The Spirit of the Clouds.  Its subtitle is “A Demonology of the Internet.”

We discussed a point that he made, that human beings are not and should not try to be purely “spiritual.”  The devil, though, is described in Scripture as “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).  Christianity and the Christian life, though–with its emphasis on Creation, Incarnation, Sacraments, and Vocation–values “the embodied life.”

What, though, is the connection between the internet and demons?  In addition to what we discussed yesterday, its contribution to our “dis-embodied” condition today, Harmon draws parallels between the ways the devil tempts us and the way the internet works upon us.

Harmon quotes St. Augustine (from De Doctrina, Book 2) on how the devil tempts us and manipulates us by drawing out the sins that he knows we have predilections for.

If that doesn’t sound like what happens to us through our interactions with algorithms online, I don’t know what would. The algorithm takes our desires, and what we are already predisposed to pay attention to, and creates a kind of psychological profile for us. This allows it to present to us things that accord with our predilections and which also then provide the algorithms—or the masters of the algorithms—with the means to manipulate us by subtly modifying what we are led to attend to, just as the demons present us with outward phenomena designed to catch our attention based on their knowledge of our (sinful or vicious) predilections. This repeated process has the effect of creating a new, unnoticed environment in which our perceptions are curated by a new kind of social media spirit of the air, which acts as a medium between us and reality.

Demons also work on us by encouraging idolatry.  Citing Psalm 115:8 and Romans 1:21-25, Harmon shows how we become like our idols.  Our identity becomes our avatar on the internet, and we take “virtual reality” for actual reality.  Just as demons try to make us “spirits of the air” just like they are.  Harmon quotes a non-believer who became interested in the writings of exorcists:

In brief, [demons] operate by preying on our imaginations and desires, which are oftentimes obscure even to us, especially when we try to penetrate the veil between present and future or between human and divine by some sort of magical or technical means. James Lindsay zeroes in on this aspect: “Demons influence people through their emotions and their interpretations of features of their lives.” Since they are airy, and proud of their elevation over our earthiness, they have a weakness: humility and an embrace of our earthbound bodies (as a matter of fact, the word “humility” is derived from a Latin word meaning “dirt” or “earth”, humus). For the Christians following along, this is why the Incarnation and the bodily sacraments are so important.

Harmon goes on to cite St. Athanasius and what he says about Christ and His incarnation:

St. Athanasius’s summary of the solution to the problem is simply that “Where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but takes to flight on sound of it” (On the Incarnation #30). Athanasius is not referring to something happening in the noumenal sphere, but rather something observable: where Christ is preached and people are baptized, idolatry fades and the influence of demons lessens in ways apparent to all. . . .

Athanasius’s account rests on two legs. First, Christ is the Incarnate Word, who unites God with human nature. . . . If it is the spirits of the air that are a problem, then the earthy character of embodied humanity can be a counteractive. . . .The presence of the Word (the logos) in the flesh points out that God really is lord of all of creation, not just the “spiritual” parts.

The second leg of Athanasius’s account is the Resurrection. . . .The fear of death becomes the main lever the demons use to manipulate human beings. But if Christ has conquered death and opened the way to eternal life, not only for the soul but also for the body, then the demons are disarmed.

Harmon is not saying that today’s information technology is demonic, in the sense of being possessed by the devil or being intrinsic evil so that we should never use it.  He proposes that we use it more modestly as a way to become more engaged with the actual, physical world:  watching do it yourself videos on YouTube, finding the times for church services, learning about local events, getting involved with local politics, and the like.  “Perhaps we can find ways to use digital tools to help us with reentry from our electronic orbit and thereby take a lever away from the manipulators of every sort.”


Illustration via pxfuel.

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